Strong Blend of Coffee, Culture : Cosmopolitanism: At a coffeehouse in La Jolla, the Lebanese-born owner attempts to encompass the whole world in the brew.


Sittin at Catalina's . . . on the famous street Girard

Just lookin at the ocean . . . and livin my life real hard

The owner bumps the table . . . and the coffee goes askance

The view most magnificent . . . like the southern coast of France --"At Catalina's Cafe," by Albert Fredricks, August, 1992

The customer came in two days in a row.

Like so many tourists and La Jolla newcomers, he sipped cups of strong coffee at an outdoor table, staring out at the gray-blue Pacific in appreciative silence as strains of Spanish, Andean and Russian music wafted from within the cafe.

And he wrote.

"On the second day, he just handed me a piece of paper filled with his handwriting," recalled owner Ibrahim Hammadi. "He was a writer, a retired guy visiting from Arkansas. He said, 'Here, I wrote this poem about your cafe. It inspired me.' "

Lots of people are inspired by Catalina's cafe in downtown La Jolla. Maybe it's the priceless ocean vista. Or the freshly baked pastries or steaming cups of cappuccino and cafe au lait. Or the Greek gyros.

Hammadi likes to think it's more than the taste of "good food served on paper plates," but the international flavor of the music, art and literature sold at the little shop, sandwiched along Girard Street a block from La Jolla Cove.

Inside its cramped quarters, cafe customers can flip through scores of compact discs from countries throughout the world--from haunting Australian Aboriginal solos on the didgeridoo to old Georgian folk songs and native music from Uganda, Senegal, Mongolia or Korea.

Browsers can buy international travel books, Egyptian art on papyrus scrolls, Brazilian cookbooks, newspapers and magazines from Italy, France and the Middle East. There's the collection of Irish proverbs and even postage stamps from a dozen countries.

Regulars say Catalina's adds a dash of international eccentricity to an already worldly La Jolla.

Most customers, after all, speak with the lilt of a foreign accent. On weekdays, the shop's outdoor tables are sprinkled with foreigners studying English at a nearby language school. And there's the occasional British tourist stopping for a spot of tea and a check of soccer scores in the Sunday Times. (The Times of London, that is.)

Hammadi encourages this, of course. After all, he speaks four languages and needs the conversational practice. And his customers, he says, satisfy his inquisitiveness about the wonderful places across the world he may never get to see.

Curiosity is the elixir at Catalina's--Ibrahim Hammadi's laboratory of culture.

"Just because you stopped going to school, that doesn't mean you stop learning things in life," he says. "These books. This music. This art. It's the way I go to school in this cafe. You expand your horizons. Customers teach me. And the coffee keeps the conversations going."

Dressed in his casual European style--dress shoes, slacks and shirt opened two or three buttons at the neck--Hammadi lets loose with an impassioned burst of words about his constant search for new cultural wares for his cafe.

"My goal is to cover the whole world," he says excitedly. "It's like back in the 13th Century when the Mongols decided that all the world was theirs and they were going to conquer it, culture by culture. That's what I do. I try to bring the cultures home to La Jolla."

For the 60-year-old Lebanese-born Hammadi, Catalina's was a lucky miracle--his answer to a stressful and largely unfulfilling career in the corporate world. After immigrating to the United States in the 1950s, he earned a doctorate in engineering at UCLA and launched himself into the computer world.

But, near the end of a long line of jobs that took him to New York and Europe and beyond, Hammadi longed for a simpler life--a business he could run himself. So he moved to San Diego and built houses, sold real estate and dabbled in the import and export business.

Then, in 1986, he saw the vacant storefront on Girard--half a block from the ocean--an old ice cream shop that specialized in waffle cones. Finally, Hammadi had met his match.

He opened Catalina's and began selling coffee. He kept the old ice cream coolers, ditching the Dreyers brand for the more tangy Italian gelato. At $4,000 per month, rent was a bit pricey on the cafe, which is the size of many walk-in closets on the mansions on nearby Mt. Soledad.

But nobody could beat the view--the hula-skirted palms, blue ocean waters and green grass of nearby Scripps Park.

"This place," he says, "looks very much like the eastern Mediterranean. It could be a view from Greece, Yugoslavia, Italy or Turkey. It's a magnet for people who are homesick for southern Europe."

From the humblest of coffee shops, Hammadi slowly branched out. The inspiration came one day when a customer gave him a $20 bill and asked to be sent a copy of some music Hammadi had played while working about the cafe kitchen.

Soon, he offered a small selection of compact discs. One day, a woman came in and bought all the Hungarian music he had for sale. It inspired him to buy more. Today, he searches catalogues for avant-garde selections not found in other stores. And he asks foreign customers what musicians are hot back home--then follows up on the suggestions.

Smiling, Hammadi says he developed what he calls the largest collection of flamenco music in the United States.

"This is the way people find their roots," he says, "through music."

Now, Hammadi regularly samples foreign music on his tiny sound system. And he's willing to make suggestions for customers to take a stab at something they might not have heard before.

But mostly, Hammadi plays deejay for himself.

"He knows a lot about music. He really helped me select some interesting Turkish music," said regular Shirley Melton. Later, to accompany her new CD, Melton returned and bought a book on the historical treatment of Turkish women.

For some, Catalina's is more like a sidewalk cafe in the heart of Paris.

"I am studying here in La Jolla for four weeks," said Guillaume Pitelet, a 22-year-old Parisian enrolled in a language school around the corner. "When I feel lonely or homesick, I come here and read. The owner, he talks to me in French, so I feel at home."

Franco Tassone, owner of La Terrazza, an Italian restaurant next door, says he and Hammadi regularly talk about Italian and French culture. He plays some of Hammadi's music in his restaurant and refers curious customers to his friend.

"I go there myself," he said. "It's a good idea for browsing couples. The woman can have a cup of coffee while the man looks over the music and literature."

Hammadi keeps the coffee coming.

"He's knowledgeable and interested in his customers--and he makes a damned good cup of cappuccino," Melton said. "And, if it's not good, he'll try again. He admits that he can make a mistake now and again."

A bad cup of cappuccino has been the least of his faux pas.

Like when he tried selling sunglasses--from the cheapies to Vuarnets--with nary a buyer. Or when he advertised his exotic French chicken a la Provencale. Nobody bought those either--until he changed his ad campaign to "chicken on pita."

Now they sell like hotcakes.

But the shelves of CD's and the books--everything from glossy presentations of early European civilizations to a Dennis the Menace cartoon book--are beginning to take their toll. Hammadi is running out of space.

Working away in his shop, he dreams of the orderly simplicity of the airline kitchen, where everything has a place. Still, he keeps buying.

Even though he works long hours, seven days a week, Ibrahim Hammadi is at peace in his kitchen--the place where, each day, the world comes to him for equal slices of culture and cuisine.

"I never look back at my old life," he said. "Because I know that every day I have my books, my music, my curiosity and my customers.

"I work hard. But when I go home to sleep at night, I sleep well."

So, life's a bowl of cherries . . . all of this I must surmise

Whether driftin' the ocean . . . or just soarin in the skies

Nearby are empty tables . . . at the adjacent cafe

But here at Catalina's . . . we are passing time of day.

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